I began my teaching career in a small, rural district in Texas, but I had a personal goal of teaching on every inhabited continent for two years. After spending two years in Chiang Rai, Thailand, I moved to Moscow, Russia where I am now soon to begin year three. Throughout my six years of teaching in several countries, I have noticed many differences in the educational systems. In some cases, American benefits, but more often than not, my experience abroad has shown me many of America’s blindspots.
First, the biggest difference that I have seen abroad is the presence of administrators in the classroom. Whether they are principals, the superintendent, or president of the school board, in every school abroad that I have worked in, the people who make the final decisions on issues also teach at least one class. This helps the teacher in so many ways. When I go to them with an issue, or something I need for class, they understand because they usually have had the same issue. The leadership of the school understands what I need in my classroom, because they are sharing the classroom with me and see that our erasers are terrible, that our whiteboard markers always dry out, or that one kid just will not behave. So many issues in America could be solved with administration teaching, or at least being open to filling in as a substitute occasionally.
The district I taught at in America was about 2 hours from the Texas-Mexico border. We had many migrant-worker families and other first generation families. This meant that about 80-85% of our student body required ESL services. Abroad, we call it ELL (English Language Learners) because many students are learning English as their third, fourth, or in one instance, fifth language. The ELL program abroad leaves many things to be desired. It is very easy at schools in foreign countries where English is not the native language, to show up at an international school, especially a small one like mine, and have English as your first language as your only prerequisite to being hired. This leads to students spending way too much time than necessary in the ELL program. At my current school, many students are in ELL for 4-5 years, when with properly trained staff who are equipped to teach ELL, students would spend only 2-3 years. At small international schools, staffing can often be a challenge, especially in Russia where governmental regulations on visas, and travel during COVID, have a major effect on recruiting teachers.
Staffing is always hard, no matter where in the world you are. It seems many people attend university to become teachers, but shortages abound because so many leave the profession for other careers. Teaching turnover rates can be high anywhere, but it is especially high abroad. Being an ocean away from family, in a different culture, with a new language can be particularly hard and leads to many teachers spending, on average at the schools I have taught at, just 2-3 years at the school before leaving. Many who stay longer are married with children who are attending the school, however, recruiting those teachers is also more difficult. Uprooting established family units to take abroad can be complicated. Consistency in the classroom, teachers and administrators spending long careers in education, is essential to a well functioning system and teaching abroad has made this imperative only more apparent to me. Keeping staff needs to be a priority of any building or system.
Lastly, the most striking difference has been student apathy. I was shocked, when teaching in America, at the amount of student apathy. Students would have contests to see how low of a score on a test they could make. This was a school-wide issue. I do have some issues of apathy in my classes where I have taught abroad, but nothing compares to the amount I saw in America. The peer pressure abroad is to lie about having a higher grade than you actually received, not the other way around. This disparity in student motivation stems from parental involvement. Parents are constantly emailing me or writing to me on our online gradebook chat system asking about grades or how their child can do better. Their child’s education matters to them. Encouraging this dynamic, parents abroad often have to make tuition payments to the school for their child’s education. In university, a math professor, who was also the department chair, said most of his day, when he is not in class, is fielding phone calls from parents talking about their child’s grade, most of the time for a class he does not teach. Why are parents so involved? It is expensive! When parents are putting money into something, they want to make sure their child is getting the most out of it they can. This helps me be the best teacher I can be, and helps the student be the best student they can be. Everyone benefits from a system like that.